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Putting Cuffs on Kids

The case of a kindergartner arrested for having a tantrum at school points to a larger pattern of students--especially Black students--being criminalized in the classroom.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


A 6-year-old child, handcuffed and charged with assault. Most people would be horrified by that image--but it's exactly what happened in mid-April to a Georgia kindergartner named Salecia Johnson.

After the African American kindergartner threw a tantrum--which reportedly included throwing a shelf that struck the school principal in the leg--police were called with a report that a "juvenile" had assaulted the principal at Creekside Elementary School and damaged school property.

Police say they found the girl crying on the floor of the principal's office. One of the officers claims he tried to calm her, but she then "pulled away and began actively resisting and fighting with me."

Imagine that: Uniformed cops with guns only made a miserable crying child more upset.

"The child was then placed in handcuffs for her safety, and the officer proceeded to bring her down to the police station," Milledgeville Police Chief Dray Swicord explained to CNN. Swicord justified the handcuffing of the 6-year-old, stating there are no exceptions to department policy and that it's done "for their own safety."

Salecia's aunt, Candace Ruff, went with Salecia's mother to pick the child up from the police station. According to Ruff, Salecia was by herself in a holding cell and complained about the handcuffs. "She said they were really tight. She said they really hurt her wrists," Ruff told the Associated Press. "She was so shaken up when we went there to pick her up."

Salecia was charged with "simple battery of a schoolteacher" and "criminal damage to property"--before someone finally came to their senses and decided it would be inappropriate to charge a 6-year-old with a felony.

But the school did expel Salecia for the rest of the year. She will be unable to return until August.


"Call the police? Is that the first step?" Salecia's mother, Constance Ruff, asked a CNN reporter, wondering if there was "any other kind of intervention" the school could have used.

Sadly, in far too many schools, police intervention is used all the time, even for very young students' disciplinary problems.

According to a recent Associated Press report, a similar incident took place in 2005 in Pinellas County, Fla., when "officers arrested a kindergartner who threw a tantrum during a jelly bean-counting contest. Since then, the overall number of student arrests in Florida has declined, but those for minor offenses have increased on a percentage basis."

J'aiesha Scott, the child who was arrested, was also African American.

According to a 2011 report from the Florida ACLU, that incident was representative of the "school-to-prison pipeline" in which "zero-tolerance" policies and a lack of due process for kids in schools see children "channeled out of public schools into the juvenile and criminal justice systems." Such policies disproportionately target students of color as well as those with learning disabilities and those from poor families.

As Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, wrote:

Salecia, like J'aeisha, has had an early ride on what we call the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track. They like millions of other children in this country are victims of the school-to-prison pipeline--a system of zero-tolerance policies in schools across the nation that takes an unyielding approach to student discipline and where children of color are punished more often and more severely for minor misbehavior than their white peers. It is a system where common sense becomes irrelevant as intolerance reigns and the consequences are high--academic failure, criminal charges, and damage to psyche. 

Consider the following examples: 

In Albuquerque alone, statistics show that for the 2009-2010 school year, some 500 children were handcuffed, arrested and brought to juvenile detention--more than 200 for minor offenses, including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, refusing to obey and interference with staff.

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